Jason Fried has been at the thoughtful end of tech thought-leadership for 20-odd years. His company, Basecamp, is a leader in productivity software, and his books, including ‘ReWork’ have helped shape a more flexible, results-orientated and agile working culture that’s been adopted by thousands of entrepreneurs and small companies over the last 20 years.
However, on Monday he sent out a company memo that I thought was a huge mistake. It’s led to mass resignations at Basecamp and been described as tone-deaf and uncaring. If you don’t know what the hell I’m on about, you can read the original memo here. And if you want to hear more about some of the concerns this raises, I thought Lauren Currie did a great job of summarising this on her Instagram live video which you can watch here.
As well as announcing an end to paternalistic benefits like wellness, fitness and personal development allowances, Fried’s memo also announced an end to committees and 360 appraisals. Most controversially though, it decreed “no more societal and political discussion on our company Basecamp account” and told staff “you shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target.”
After years of tech companies, including Basecamp, talking about their employees like a family, encouraging people to bring their whole selves to work and making all the right noises about inclusivity and diversity at work, this feels like a huge step in the wrong direction. Following the lead of Coinbase, it also reads as a post-George Floyd pushback: “yeah, we posted our black squares, but when it came to actually listen to our employees on issues like racism and sexism, we’ve decided it’s actually just too hard and, well, we want to get back to work now”.
The truth is, either you’re committed to being proactively anti-racist, or you’re not. And this Basecamp memo feels like an admission that they’re just… not.
For all of us, the job of listening to your own employees’ concerns, getting feedback, or running forums to look for biases in processes or culture is difficult stuff. It’s time-consuming. It can be awkward and even scary. Most things that are worth doing are. And yes, often it feels ‘distracting’ from what you’re trying to do — from the ‘real work’ (Fried says in the piece “We make project management, team communication and email software. We are not a social impact company.”).
The point is that we all have a social impact whether we like it or not. We all have a responsibility, in all of our actions, to reflect the kind of society we want to see. Because we are society. The type of leader you are, the type of employer you are and yes, the assumptions of your team that shape the software you build, are all part of your societal impact.
If you’re suffering any form of discrimination, then political or societal discussions aren’t just abstract idea-playgrounds, they’re your lived experience. You can’t just ‘switch them off’. Leaving your politics or opinions at the door is much easier for middle-aged white guys like me or Jason. We have the luxury to simply “wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit”. But for many people, that pesky politics isn’t just whether you wear a Maga hat in the office or encourage colleagues to share a charity appeal, it’s whether you’re paid properly, valued properly, listened to, and given the same chances as others. As the last year has taught us more than ever, we’re all interconnected.
It would be lovely if we could all operate in a vacuum and just deliver the work we want to deliver. It’s actually a beautiful productivity idea: eliminate all the distractions, and simply put all of your attention onto doing meaningful creative work that matters. As an introverted writer who has spent more time this year dealing with ‘people stuff’ than at any point in the last five or six years, every minute of which takes me away from making my next book as perfect as I want it to be, then yes, I’ll admit there’s a small and privileged part of me that just wants to live in a cave, to not have a team, not be part of anything bigger. Just do the work, nothing more nothing less. It sounds wonderful for a second, but then I remember that all those people I just wished away are the ones who make my work meaningful for me, and more valuable for everyone else.
And yes of course we need a balance. If your team spends all day ‘talking politics’ (which from what I’ve read, isn’t even what was happening at Basecamp), then yes, that is going to distract them from doing more great work. We do need some structure and discipline to help us focus, and that needs to be extrinsic as much as it can be intrinsic. Deadlines are good. Knowing that people are so engaged and motivated, that they will create their own deadlines is even better.
High performing teams and organisations need to listen to each other. Regularly. And deeply. The best work happens where a group of smart people come together and push each other to be better by being more than the sum of their silo’d parts.
Humans are weird: different, flawed, smart, occasionally wrong, proud, sometimes preoccupied, sometimes in pain, often biased. But you put us all together and community enriches the experience of work.
It makes our work better.
It is the work — as leaders or as team members — to listen, to honour, to witness.
And it’s often messy as fuck.
But it is the work.
So this is me reaffirming my need to stay curious and open about societal issues and continue to reaffirm that bridges are better than walls. To continue having an open door and an open heart. To recognise my messy imperfections. And most importantly, to recognise that although it’s not convenient, it still matters. It will always matter.
And yes, even when we see its’ importance, all this ‘people stuff’ may still slow us all down. But personally, I’d rather take that time so that we all reach the summit together than be stuck at Basecamp and wondering where all the people went.